Black in Brighton: Mariam Issa’s Resilient life
A Tale of Two New Years
On New Year’s Eve 2009, fireworks in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton threatened to re-open old wounds from Mogadishu 1991. Somali-born Mariam Issa struggled to overcome memories of war nearly 20 years earlier. It was not typical of her. She describes herself as someone “who goes out with a smile”.
Mariam’s life has been a series of new years: changing countries, changing cultures, changing roles and responsibilities. Her self-published autobiography A Resilient Life was launched at the old Brighton Town Hall in Melbourne’s bayside suburb on 4 December 2012. It is self-published by Harsons Graphics.
It was a large crowd for this kind of event: family, friends and people from the local community. This is a stirring example of Mariam’s belief in a “resilient and adaptable community”. She stresses the importance of breaking barriers. Her life so far has certainly fitted that tag.
Her inspiring speech at the book launch is captured in this video:
Growing Up in Africa
Mariam was born in Kismayu, Somalia, in the tumultuous year of 1968, before moving to Majengo in Kenya where she started school. The importance to Mariam of Hooyo (her mother) and Ayeeyo (her grandmother) is reflected in the book’s dedication and her vivid memories of these strong women throughout the book. With Hooyo’s support, Mariam managed to finish secondary school despite strong opposition from her father.
As a young woman, she moved once again to join her husband Mohamed in Qatar. A move back to his hometown of Mogadishu was short-lived. While her husband was away, the outbreak of war forced Mariam to flee to Kenya, with her two small children Abdul and Abdi. They faced a four-day ordeal on a leaky, overcrowded boat with little food or water. It almost ended in disaster when the authorities at Mombasa tried to prevent them from landing.
A New Continent
Eight very tough years in Kenya as refugees followed. The family of seven, including their daughters Sumaya and Sarah and third son Yusuf, finally emigrated to Australia in 1998 through the family reunion scheme. After 14 years in Melbourne, Mariam has completed what she calls her “integration project”, which has certainly had it challenging moments.
She has re-invented herself once again. Now she is a budding entrepreneur with a cooking school Cook with Mariam and a passion for permaculture. She shares these interests with a group named RAW (Resilient Aspiring Women), which has been developing a community permaculture garden.
Her detailed accounts are well worth reading. “I don’t have to talk about myself anymore,” Mariam said at the launch event. “Read the book if you want to know about me.”
Her priorities in life are clear: family, friends and community; religion and culture. Like most Somalis, she is a practising Muslim. Two factors that have also helped in her journey have been her lifelong love of reading through her access to English books and her independent spirit.
At the launch, Margaret Gambold praised her friend:
“Great fortitude, bravery and determination mark Mariam’s journey – and over the intimate times we shared I grew to immensely admire her – one could say – tunnel vision to integration – despite any and many obstacles.
She is in every way one of the pioneers for all African refugee women. A leader, an encourager and most of all a caring and sharing individual who has opened the gateway for those who dare to follow.”
Mariam talked of Somalia’s culture of storytellers and the way it helps to humanize, empower and educate one another. “We can visit one another’s reality with compassion … and just understand the other person.”
It is impossible to believe that Mariam will stop talking about her remarkable story. To learn more, you can obtain a copy of A Resilient Life here.